Celebrating the food and traditions that bring us together.
[sidebar] “The loss of tradition is tragic because a generation cannot break away from a past into bold new creative patterns if it has no relationship to the past.” – Paul Goodman, TIME magazine
Every year during Thanksgiving and New Year’s, my family gets together to prepare the same two dishes we’ve been preparing for as long as I can remember: chow mein noodles and nishime, the traditional Japanese stew made with root vegetables and in our case, chicken. We all get together to help chop. By now, everyone knows his or her duties. While mom preps all the ingredients – peeling the carrots, boiling the araimo (mountain potato), soaking the shitake mushrooms – we start chopping away. My oldest brother Jason starts with the char siu for the chow mein, cutting off chunks of fat from 10 pounds of juicy pork before slicing it thin, while my sister-in-law Donna and I julienne carrots and flat green beans. Dad starts with the kobu, long strands of seaweed that he ties off into knots and cuts into bite-sized pieces for the nishime. We joke that it’ll take him all night to finish the kobu – and it does. We laugh and predict dad will end up cutting himself – and he does. The youngest in our family, my niece Jessica, usually ends up with the easiest job, picking Chinese parsley from its stems and cutting the tips off garlic cloves.
Over the years, we’ve all become quality control agents, scolding dad when his kobu is not the right size, some knots extra knobby and way larger than bite-size. Donna’s carrots are too thin, my beans too big; Jason peeling away too much potato with the husky araimo skin. “All gotta be same size,” mom says, “or it won’t cook evenly.” We chop the gobo (burdock root) into stubby diagonal spears, more carrots are done the same way. Hasu (lotus root), or what we like to call “wagon wheels,” are sliced into rounds and placed into tubs of water to prevent them from turning brown. Mom slams slabs of konnyaku in the sink to keep the wobbly potato-based blocks from getting chewy. For some reason, the blocks stink like squid. It’s cut into thin sashimi-like pieces, slit through the middle and turned inside out to resemble the shape of ribbons. More shitakes for the chow mein, then another bucketful for the nishime. “No need cut the stems off,” Jason argues. “Just throw the whole thing in the pot.” Mom says that he can do it however he wants when he takes over and insists the tough stems be cut off. There is, after all, only one cook in the kitchen. We predict that my middle brother Daven will end up coming late or not at all. He and his wife Charity, along with their three-month old newborn Madison, come right on schedule two hours later.
With the eight of us, the chopping continues into the night, and we finally finish five hours later. I can remember when mom did everything by herself. She’d run around between Chinatown and Marukai, looking for which store had the best sale, searching to find the most succulent char siu and the cheapest string beans and hasu. She would stay up into the wee hours of the night, getting barely more than a couple hours of sleep. Even now, her work will continue long after we’ve cleaned our cutting boards and put away our knives, when she huddles over simmering pots of stew, the mix of vegetables, puffy tofu skins and chicken becoming higher and higher until she is forced to empty out the cooked vegetables into gallon-sized chili buckets from Zippy’s.
Jason says he’ll just buy the nishime once mom is gone, but I don’t think he’s serious. I can’t imagine a New Year’s without mom’s nishime, and I don’t think he can either. After all, it’s tradition. And far too many traditions are already being lost, traded in for convenience and a result of general apathy. Sure we monku (complain) about the tedious process of preparing the ingredients exactly as mom instructs (“no need tie off the kobu” and, “no one’s going to care if the konnyaku isn’t twisted”), but of course, this is all just part of the tradition, phrases we mutter every year. I think deep down, we are grateful to come together as a family, grateful to be connected to a past that started with my grandmother, but which originated much before. It’s not so much the making of the food, or even the food itself that’s so important – it’d be much easier to buy noodles from Chun Wah Kam or nishime from any neighborhood okazuya – but it’s the experience of coming together as a family that is what’s most cherished.
Right before New Year’s, a friend invited me to attend her family’s annual mochi pounding get together. I was expecting a small gathering of aunts and uncles, but when I got there, the house was filled with aunties, uncles, cousins, nephews, neighbors, friends, friends of friends, and people who had just heard something about some mochi pounding thing in Mānoa, all warmly welcomed by Gordon and Gayle Lum. In typical local style, Mr. Lum pushed me toward the spread of food. “Eat, eat,” he tells me. Then again two minutes later, “Did you eat? You gotta eat, that’s why everybody comes!” Three minutes after that, I’m handed a plate piled high with tripe stew, chow fun, corn clam chowder and braised short ribs, all homemade by Mr. Lum; on the table there’s manapua buns, platters of chicken katsu, barbeque beef and nacho dip; pork, fish and chicken lau laus, to be served later on for dinner, are steaming in handmade wooden boxes set atop propane burners.
Meanwhile, the thock, thock, thock of wood hitting wood resumes behind me. Steaming hot sweet rice is pulled from those same handmade boxes that the lau laus are being steamed in and dumped into an usu, the bowl used for pounding the mochi. “The rice has to be soaked for a couple days before,” says Mrs. Lum about the mochi-making process. “Once the rice is cooked, you’re going to mash it to get the grains sticking together. Then after you mash, you pound.” Once the mochi is smooth, it’s moved to a table covered with flour, where many hands work to stuff the warm mochi with an assortment of fillings like azuki bean, peanut butter and chocolate.
The Lum and Kobayashi families have been hosting mochi poundings since the mid ’90s, but they’ve been pounding much longer than that. “Our grandparents and parents did it a long, long time ago,” says Mrs. Lum, “but back then, we were just kids and we didn’t want to be bothered with that, so eventually we stopped doing it. But as we got older, my cousins, which is the Kobayashi side, started having kids and they wanted their kids to learn how to do it.” Though they’ve adjusted the formula a bit, using propane tanks instead of a wood-burning cauldron to steam the rice, the mochi remains as delicious as ever. There’s nothing quite like freshly pounded mochi, still warm and much softer than the store-bought kind.
This year, Mrs. Lum estimates they’ll pound 150 pounds of rice into the chewy sweets, with many people bringing their own rice to pound. Her family provides 50 pounds of rice, but it’s meant to be shared with others. “I’m not gonna pound all that rice myself,” she says. “We bring all that so that friends will do it.” A dry erase board lists names of people waiting to pound. There’s a couple from Australia, a father and daughter who’s swift strokes make it obvious they’ve done this before, a nephew visiting from California who’s experiencing his first pound.
I ask one of the nieces if she’ll carry on the tradition. “Do you know how much work it is?” she says, looking at me like I’m crazy. “My aunty and uncle are prepping the entire week for this.” I’m sure those words were uttered years ago when Gordon and Gayle were her age.
This year, I unwittingly started a tradition of my own. So much time was spent over the holidays with my biological family, but so little with the people I encounter every day, my work family. The one time of year our house is clean enough to have company over, I invited a few colleagues over for dinner and some ping-pong and karaoke.
Chicken katsu, grilled ribeye, seafood crab salad, baked salmon, seven layer dip, sashimi, Chinese chicken salad, chocolate trifle, pear tart, banana cream pie, pound cake – mom went all out. And because a family always pitches in to help each other out, dad cleaned, Jason grilled the steaks, Donna made her famous crab jun, and my Aunty Elaine, mom’s sister, made a baked sushi casserole and a no-sugar banana bread, making one diabetic guest very happy. “We should all write our names on the bottles of wine or beer that we brought and see if they’re still here next year,” said one guest, automatically assuming there would be a next year.
Food is what inevitably brings us together. More than feeding our bodies, food feeds our spirits, strengthening bonds between family and friends and often building new ones with strangers. We may not agree on the appropriate size of kobu or the exact way to steam sweet rice, but I’m sure we can all agree on that.